Highsmith’s Cinderella story continues during improbable run from Miami Heat

For much of the last week, the basketball world was captivated by the possibility of the Boston Celtics becoming the first team in NBA history to advance in a best-of-seven series after falling behind 3-0.

Instead, the heavily-favored Celtics squandered an opportunity for a second straight Eastern Conference championship and suffered a 103-84 home loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7.

With that result, the Cinderella story continues for the Heat, which will attempt to become the first No. 8 seed to win an NBA championship in their series that awaits with the Denver Nuggets.

Within Miami’s roster alone are no shortage of Cinderella stories, with seven of the team’s players undrafted, including forward Haywood Highsmith.

Highsmith, a former Mountain East Conference Player of the Year at what was then Wheeling Jesuit, has not only reached the pinnacle of basketball after being bypassed in the 2018 NBA Draft, he’s done so as a rare product of Division II to make it in the NBA.

“I’ve always been overlooked, underrated and always been the underdog, so I’m used to it,” Highsmith said as a guest on CityNet Statewide Sportsline. “I had plenty of opportunities to quit, but I’ve had so many encouraging people and so many people around my life that have supported me throughout my basketball career, and they’ve pushed me and made me stronger. I don’t think I’d be here without a lot of people that I’ve had in my life.”

A Division II All-American in his time with the Cardinals, Highsmith was a matchup problem nightly and starred and what is now Wheeling University. 

Still, it’s one thing to regularly post double-doubles in the MEC and another to prove yourself in the NBA.

“I had two routes I could’ve taken — overseas or try the G League/NBA route,” Highsmith said. “My agent that I was working with felt I was a great fit for a NBA team and could make a roster somewhere. From there, it was just all about confidence and understanding that the fact I got here somehow, someway, got my foot in the door and they’re actually seeing something in me.”

Highsmith’s college success and performance in tryouts helped him ink a deal with the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats, and he ultimately made his NBA debut with the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2018-19 campaign.

Highsmith ultimately wound up having four separate stints with the Blue Coats along with playing in Germany between the second and third of those stints.

In February of 2022, he inked separate 10-day deals with the Heat and the organization opted to keep him around when they expired.

After appearing in 19 games last season and averaging 2.3 points, Highsmith assumed a more expanded role this season and played in 54 regular season contests. Over an average of 17.9 minutes, the 6-foot-5 forward contributed 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.

“Once I really started to dominate and understand that I am a good player and do deserve to be here and that I could be one of the best players all-time at Wheeling, I really started to lock in to work my hardest, get better each and every day and get in the gym two or three times a day,” Highsmith said. “Division II wasn’t the same as the NBA obviously, but it wasn’t easy being a great player in Division II. All the hard work paid off for me and I just kept fighting.”

After appearing in eight playoff games for Miami last season, Highsmith has played in 13 of a possible 18 this time around. He’s averaging 3.2 points and 1.5 rebounds during 9.7 minutes, and during the Game 7 win, Highsmith scored a transition bucket and came up with a steal while defending Celtics’ forward Jayson Tatum. In Game 5 of the series, Highsmith made three three-pointers and scored 15 points in 36 minutes.

“I’m not pressed to score 20 or 30 a night. I’ll guard the best player, rebound, make the extra pass and do the hustle plays to do whatever to help my team win,” Highsmith said. “Not much has really changed. I’ve just taken a more deferred role as far as my scoring, but I’m still the same player and I feel like I can still score. Not the same way I scored in D2, but definitely can score in different ways. Just tried to find my knack in the league that would help me stick.”

Following Monday’s win, Miami flew to Denver through the night as it prepares for the series opener Thursday night.

The Heat are again underdogs against the top seed in the Western Conference, though Miami has already taken out the East’s top two seeds in the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston. That was after Miami was forced to survive a win-or-go-home play-in contest against the Chicago Bulls to even qualify for the postseason.

“We knew if we got into the playoffs we were going to make some noise,” Highsmith said. “We have competitive guys that rise to the occasion anytime the spotlight is on them. With a guy like Jimmy Butler, everybody is going to gravitate towards him, ride his coattail and follow him. He’s been a great leader for us. We have good vets in the locker room like Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love who kept pushing. We have great young players and undrafted players like myself that have the underdog mentality. We’re just built different. We knew we’re not an ordinary eight seed and we were coming in try to win this whole thing.”

In the process of playing a role for the Heat during the Eastern Conference finals, Highsmith says he took time to step back and think about how full circle everything had come as he was facing off against Celtics’ head coach Joe Mazzulla. Mazzulla played at West Virginia University before embarking on a coaching career that included stops at MEC members Glenville State and Fairmont State. 

During Mazzulla’s time as the Falcons’ head coach, his teams went against Highsmith.

“It’s interesting and crazy how life works,” Highsmith said. “Last year, the same situation when he’s an assistant coach. He got the best of me and this year, we got the best of him, but he’s a great coach and I respect him so much. Coming from where he’s come from, he’s moved up very quickly and rightfully so. I know he’s proud of me and how far I’ve come and I’m proud of how far he’s come. We’re going to keep putting on for West Virginia and keep going.”

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